I lived in the burbs for eight years. A theme in modern American literature is the breakdown that occurs in this seemingly peaceful atmosphere of fresh cut lawns, barbeques, and decks. “Desperate Housewives” is the television example of this literary narrative. The theme extends into personal memoir and biographical writing.
No one writer is responsible for this genre, but John Cheever’s works stand to be the oldest popular representative. He knew the breakdown because he lived it. He knew the sense of fraud, living as a country gentleman, living a life he invented. But I feel he missed an important insight about America.
My insight came as a result of leaving the burbs. But the burbs is not the thing. The burbs is merely a setting, not the reason for things. John Cheever enjoyed the freedom to invent; himself and the stories he created. He stood by his art but he had trouble standing by himself, he admits. His journals express in honest voice, self-loathing. But self-loathing provides excellent juice for tension, fear, and motivation.
It doesn’t seem to me to be a matter of setting. I think the insight is in our American way of self-invention that is a freedom and for some a curse. Eminem has completed his twelve step program for the time being and he’s slipped on his Slim Shadey sweats to serenade us with another angst-driven invented bit of lyrical American narrative.